Friday, November 30, 2012 of the future?

I've expressed strong opinions over the years about the cluttered mess most news websites present on their home pages. To me, it's the equivalent of printing a front page from the middle of the last century, when it was common to have a dozen stories or more on 1A.

The home page of has been cleaned up quite a bit since the beginning of the year, but the straightjacket that is the TownNews template makes it difficult to make a really dramatic presentation.

Then I was looking at design-guru Tim Harrower's website the other day and saw in his promotional video a screen shot of The First Post, an online-only news site in Great Britain. The home page and subsequent section fronts do what I think news websites should do at their main entry point:
• Identify a clear lead story
• Eliminate scrolling
• Tease to the most significant stories in other sections
• Use menus to link users to the rest of the content on the site.

After an ownership change, The First Post abandoned its design for something more typical. But I think its original approach would be a terrific template for what could look like in the future.

What do you think?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hearst feature writing winners

The first of the Hearst Journalism Awards for this year were announced today. The competition was feature writing. I thought you'd enjoy reading the winning stories, so here are links provided by Hearst:
Melissa Abbey, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, first place, $2,600 scholarship.
Alex Orlando
, University of Florida, second place, $2,000 scholarship
Faiz Siddiqui
, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, third place, $1,500 scholarship
Christie Megura
, University of Missouri, fourth place, $1,000 scholarship
Eli Epstein
, New York University, fifth place, $1,000 scholarship
The sixth through tenth place winners receive certificates of merit:
Hannah Wise
, University of Kansas, sixth place
Rachel Hoffman
, Northwestern University, seventh place
Veronica Jones,
Arizona State University, eighth place
Brittany Horn
, Pennsylvania State University, ninth place
Nate Hopper
, Syracuse University, tenth place.

Try to stop reading Alex Orlando's feature once you get started. I couldn't.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Writing for webcast

The three-minute daily webcast on has come a long way since the beginning of the year, but one thing that hasn't gotten a lot better is the writing. Just as I struggled to write in broadcast style when I made the switch from print to TV, the webcast staff is having a hard time changing the style and tone of its copy.

Here are parts of today's webcast script as I heard them being read this morning:
The Town and Gown meeting is today when they will discuss reducing the impacts of large community holidays, such as Labor Day. Check out tomorrow for updates. 
Women’s basketball started out the season during Thanksgiving break playing Saturday, November 17th at Fresno Pacific. Chico State won its season opener for the 14th straight season, while Fresno Pacific, one of the newest members of the conference, fell to zero and four on the year.   
McKensie Dalthorp led the Wildcats posting 16 points while hauling in six rebounds, winning the game by three points, 66 to 63. 
On November 20th, the team played against Cal State Stanislaus...
Here's one way a broadcaster might have rewritten the script to be more conversational. It brings the sports stories into the present tense and simplifies sentences and word choice.
Leaders of the Chico community and Chico State will meet today to talk about making Labor Day and other holidays safer. Check out theorion-dot-com later today for updates. 
The Chico State women's basketball team is now two-and-oh after season-opening wins against Fresno Pacific and Cal-State Stanislaus. 
The Wildcats' McKensie Dalthorp scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds in a 66 to 63 win over Fresno.  
Dalthorp scored in 15 more in the 'Cats 78-43 conference opener against Stanislaus.
That's 85 words compared to 106 from the webcast. Notice that the copy is simpler and easier to understand and sounds more like someone talking instead of reading. Notice, too, that the copy avoids telling viewers that the games happened a week ago by bringing the story into the present. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What does a digital-first paper newspaper look like?

I've been asked one question more than any other since I interviewed to be The Orion adviser last spring: "Do you see a time when we'll no longer have a newsprint version of the newspaper?"

My answer has always been an unequivocal "no." I think lots of lots of people still expect and want a printed version of the paper, training students to be journalists still means training them for jobs in print media and print advertising still pays the bills at The Orion (though fewer bills than it did in the past).

But the push to make the paper a digital-first source of news -- essentially making the news available in some form on the Web before the paper is printed on Wednesdays -- should result in an Orion that looks a lot different than the current version.

As I've written here before, the paper's sports department has been the first to catch on to this idea, but I think it's helpful to at least try to imagine what the entire paper might look like if everyone else got the message.

My ideal digital-first paper would do what newspapers can still do best: explain the news, use the physical space of the newspaper page to tell a story visually and convey certain types of advertising messages to readers (primarily those with lots of price information or other content that might need to be reread, but also those that need large spaces on pages to provide visual appeal or information).

Bite-sized stories
My redesigned paper would use the short version of stories already on the website the way the stories that now appear on A2 and in the right rail on the op-ed page are displayed. These 100-word briefs would help readers who hadn't seen the website or mobile app versions keep up with the news. The sports section's In Case You Missed It digest of the past weekend's game stories is another good example of this. USA Today's state-by-state roundup of news is one more.

Four-course meals
The section fronts in my ideal paper would be dominated by project reporting: centerpieces, packages of stories that emphasize in-depth reporting, analysis, graphics and other alternative storytelling methods that inform readers about issues that matter to them.  These would range from investigative reports to photo features, personal profiles to almost-full-page infographics. They might be researched and written by teams of reporters.

If this sounds more like a magazine than a traditional newspaper, that's not an accident. The formula of combining long-form and short-form journalism has been a reader-pleasing staple of contemporary consumer magazines for years. My ideal paper would still be a newspaper, though, because it's cheap to produce and has all that wonderful space in which to tell stories.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Another puzzle piece in place

We received word over Thanksgiving break that The Orion mobile app has been accepted by the Apple App Store. I downloaded it to my phone this morning, and even in its beta phase it looks great.

In the next week or so (fingers crossed), the six content tiles that open on the app's home page will be replaced by custom-designed art that will serve as a table of contents to the five traditional Orion sections (news, features, sports, opinion, arts), three ad links and four links to be determined. Check in with Kacey Gardner or Jenna Valdespino if you have opinions about what those four should be. (I vote for a link to the daily webcast and a bigger-better calendar).

Also available soon, maybe even this fall, will be online coupons from Chico merchants accessible on the Offers page. If users allow the app to know their location, they can see which pizza restaurant is offering what deal and how far they'll have to walk to redeem the virtual coupon. A share button will allow them to send the offer to friends, too. I'm optimistic this two-channel advertising approach (traditional in-place online ads and the virtual coupon service) will help the paper get back on track to profitability.

From a news standpoint, the app puts another digital-first piece in place for The Orion. Instead of having to navigate the website or depend on Twitter or Facebook for campus news and events, students can just open the app on their phone to see what's happening.

That means it'll be even more important to get stories on as soon as they're ready (meaning: as they happen or right afterward) because the app takes an automatic feed from the website. It also means that everyone needs to be thinking about at least one piece of art with every story, even if it's only a headshot. The app screen displays a photo or graphic to the left of every story in the news section, and to be consistently attention-grabbing, the art needs to be in place.

Welcome back!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Owning the story

When I worked at the Pioneer-Press in St. Paul, the newsroom prided itself on saturation coverage of breaking stories. It wouldn't be uncommon for half a dozen reporters and several photographers to fly out the door when tornadoes swept through the northern suburbs or a freeway bridge collapsed. We wanted to say that we owned the story.

A digital-first newsroom gives The Orion that same capability, and I saw the paper use some of it Thursday when the death of Mason Sumnicht and several incidents involving fraternities and sororities on campus created a perfect storm for the Greek system that led President Paul Zingg to shut 'em down until January.

Pedro Quintana started tweeting as soon as the president's office announced a meeting to discuss the issue and kept updating as Zingg somberly lowered the boom on the Greeks. Annie Maize captured video at the BMU Auditorium while Zingg spoke and she and Nicholas Kinoshita put a video up soon after. Photographer Frank Rebelo joined Pedro at the meeting and the pair posted photos and a story shortly afterward. Pedro dove in to write the story the same afternoon about Sumnicht's death, and the webcast team included both stories in its show for today.

The Orion's reporting on Facebook was solid, too, and followers posted some comments there reacting to the death and the suspensions.

All good work, and the sort of effort that the campus is starting to recognize as the new trademark of The Orion.

What else could have been done?

It didn't take "rewgolfer" long to write a couple of hundred words analyzing the situation as a comment on the Web version of The Orion's story, putting it in context and making some specific recommendations for action by the university, the Chico PD, Tehama Group Communications and even The Orion to address the issue. That's something the paper's opinion columnists and even the editor-in-chief could have done as easily and, I hope, more powerfully. It was a chance for the newspaper to take a leadership role on the issue.

The Facebook page could have been used to foster the conversation that a few visitors had started by posting comments itself to encourage more commentary. The paper also could have put up a poll asking visitors if the president's actions were justified or if they'd have any effect on the university's culture of drunkenness. The same could have been done on the website.

Pedro clearly had enough to do to cover the basic stories, so other reporters could have helped him or explored other angles:
• The history of university action against the Greek system on alcohol issues.
• The reaction of Greek leadership to the suspension.
• A quick summary of the alcohol-related deaths this fall.
• More specifics about the other incidents that led to the suspension.
• Student-on-the-street interviews about the suspension and the issue of drunk culture at Chico State.
• What the Greek charters actually say about alcohol, responsibility, etc.
• What other colleges are doing to address the issue of alcohol.

The Enterprise-Record had three reporters assigned to the story Thursday. The Orion probably should have had twice that many.

I talked just last week about throwing out the standard home page template when news breaks and devoting all the space there to a breaking story. This would have been a good opportunity to do that.

This is all especially important because the ink-and-paper version of The Orion will not appear for another two weeks. The Internet is the new home for breaking news. It's where the paper can show its stuff and own big stories.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sorting out platforms: aggregation

One of the first disagreements I had with The Orion editors during a Wednesday critique was about the utility of the state, national and world news summaries that run down the far left column of page A2. With news available instantly through a hundred websites and the Associated Press, why would readers care to read day-old stories in a weekly paper devoted to campus news?

I don't dictate, I advise, so that collection of stories still runs in the A2 rail each week. But would my advice about news aggregation be different for


The Orion's website is just as capable of capturing news from the Web as any of the big aggregation sites and apps, but it has a special advantage that makes it valuable to its audience: its audience.

A sharp editor at would be able to scan the Web (using RSS feeds, the existing aggregators, Twitter, etc.) and present a smartly edited collection of story summaries and links that would appeal to a general college audience or a Chico State audience. Student journalists know what their peers might be interested in reading or watching and could tailor a feature like this better than Google News or Fark ever could.

Yes, there are students out there who have the time and take enough of an interest in what's on the Web to do this for themselves, but I think the vast majority won't or don't. Just as a traditional newspaper wire editor sorted the hundreds of stories on the AP wire to include in the next morning's paper, so too could an Internet editor create something appealing and valuable for The Orion's audience.

Written well, a Web aggregation feature could become a destination for visitors.

Friday, November 9, 2012

5 radical suggestions for improving The Orion

Not taking home Pacemakers for the newspaper and website this year should make us all think about what The Orion can do to get back in the national winner's circle. Here are five big changes I think the paper could make to improve what it does.

1. Make the website look more like Time's

Not The Times. Time magazine.

In 11 weeks, has taken some solid steps to being more like a daily paper without the paper, but for a number of reasons I don't think it's going to get all the way there anytime soon. The weekly print deadlines are still the priority of most of the staff, and that means the website will continue to get 80 or 90 percent of its contents all at once. So, I say, make the website fit the culture instead of the other way least for now.

I think Time magazine's website would be a pretty good model. (It's not a coincidence that Time is a weekly magazine). Here's what I like and why I think it would fit The Orion:
• Daily news photography at has been an epic fail, so the paper should follow Time's lead and make the lead photo the visual part of each day's lead story (upper left corner on Time's home page). Time also uses that corner to link to related content.
• Featuring text stories with two- and three-line news headline links in the middle of the home page would play to the strength of the newspaper and put The Orion's best foot forward online.
• The site should use the upper right corner of the home page for the TV webcast. (Time uses it for a light feature on this day.) The webcast has been the one consistent nod to the importance of having fresh content on the site every day, and visitors should be able to find it in a prominent place on the home page.
• The logo area should be shortened to get more information on the opening screen. The premium ad should have a home under the webcast.
• Feature photo slideshows, which can be timeless, belong in the next tier of content.
• The news, feature, opinion, etc., section listings should be restored farther down the page.
• News and sports Twitter feeds can be played as a vertical element next to the sections (where the big red dot is on Time's home page).
• The most popular and most shared list of stories could go under a link to the PDF version of the paper in the right column under the ad.

I'd keep the breaking news crawl at the top of the page, as Time does. It still gives the paper an opportunity to play fresh content high up on the home page, but it really reduces the amount of real estate that has to change every day to keep the site looking fresh.

2. Replace section editors with senior reporters.

It's a truism of college journalism that the best writers ascend to editing jobs and their bylines are never seen again. That's never made sense to me. At daily papers, the promotion means more money, but the compensation for working on a college paper is the opportunity to hone your craft and compile a stack of brilliant clips.

So, I suggest keeping the best writers writing. Name a senior reporter for each section and have him or her write one major story a week, with help from a less experienced reporter (to do legwork) if necessary. The pieces they produce would become centerpieces on the section fronts each issue.

3. Separate presentation from editing.

If the section editors are spending more time writing, they have to spend less time doing something else. I think they should continue to work as content editors with other reporters in the section, but when they're done sending stories to the copy desk, they should be done with the paper.

That's the model on daily newspapers.

Page designers should start using page dummies so they can send stories with headline orders to the copy editors, who should be writing all the headlines in the paper. This would also encourage using a more maestro approach to page design, which would liven up the pages.

Centralizing the copy desk (no more section copy editors) with a traditional slot and rim would help spread the additional work around and improve the quality of headlines.

4. Have a website staff like the webcast staff.

Until some recent defections, the webcast staff has been what Kacey Gardner and I thought at the beginning of the year the newspaper would become -- a group focused on getting fresh content on the website every day.

That's more difficult for them, now, with fewer people. But the model is a good one. That small group of reporters and producers didn't worry about the weekly Orion deadline, so they were able to concentrate on producing something new every day. They experimented, found fun news ways to present the news and produced a webcast far superior to last year's effort.

I think a similar effort for the website itself would be just as successful. A group of reporters whose only responsibility is to put fresh stories on the website a couple of times a day is the best bet to improve the site. That would mean creating a postion for one editor whose sole job is to direct daily coverage. And it means someone has to be around to edit and post when the stories come in.

This new team would be an ideal place to assign new reporters, who could gain experience writing shorter stories accompanied by audio, photos and video.

5. Build a webcast set and standardize the webcast.

It's time for the green screen to go. All the great content in the webcast gets lost for me when Quinn Western glows around the edges because of projection noise. Without spending a lot of money, The Orion could build a small anchor set in the existing room upstairs (which would have the added benefit of cleaning up that space to make it more functional).

I don't love everything about the News OK set at the Oklahoma City newspaper, but it's functional and works well with the single-anchor setup The Orion uses.

It's also important to standardize the webcast. I think leading with hard news from the anchor, then going to a feature (like Wednesday's person on the street or sports interviews on Fridays), the weather and finally what's happening on campus that day is a great format. It leaves room for commercial messages in a couple of spots, and could be a consistent five-minute webcast.

It's also important that it be produced every weekday, no exceptions. The staff is going to need to get bigger to do that.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Election coverage: It's all about the planning

I just read a wonderful piece by the Poynter Institute's Mallary Jean Tenore describing how the Tampa Bay Times planned and executed its election coverage Tuesday. The results were stunning (read the piece to see photos of how the front page evolved as each edition went to press), but what was most impressive to me was the amount of thought and effort that went into the planning.

The Orion, of course, had to go to bed way too early Tuesday evening to have even a basic election story in Wednesday's paper, but the staff did turn in a solid effort on Twitter that instantly posted. Still, there clearly wasn't enough planning done in the Plumas basement to put on a truly stellar election-night effort.

In hindsight (always 20-20, of course), so much more could have been done to serve readers.

Here are some examples of extraordinary newspaper website coverage noted by Regina McCombs, also of The Poynter Institute:

• Video of voters leaving the polls, local celebrations as the outcome became clear and interviews with expert political observers.
• Regular updates and even streaming feeds from news sets in newsrooms, much like a TV broadcast.
• Interviews with "smart young people in party clothes expressing their opinions on the returns, often quoting breaking news from other outlets."

Some of the sites McCombs cites also had slideshows of news photos taken during election day and night.

Some of the storytelling efforts I saw during election night that might have been part of The Orion's coverage:

• throwing out the home page template and replacing it with an all-election page (Washington Post)
• interactive graphics that explained why the vote was going the way it did (New York Times, WNYC-TV in New York)
• a low-tech running timeline of results (a basic blog) updated on the half hour (New Orleans Times-Picayune)
• A basic online spreadsheet updated as new results came in all night (

By not planning better for Tuesday, The Orion missed a real opportunity to make its own extraordinary effort.

What Wednesday's papers looked like on other campuses. These papers are dailies, and they put together some of the best front pages in the country.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sorting out platforms: Advertising

"What to do about advertising?" has been the big question since Craigslist started making newspaper classified ad sections a mere shadow of their former selves. Whether the recession has had as much to do with plunging newspaper revenue as the Web has is still a matter of debate, but I think the Internet and the economic downturn formed the perfect storm to batter the newspaper business.

The solutions haven't been big winners, so far. It's clear that smaller papers with audiences insulated from the Web (local weekly papers) have done a lot better, mostly because they can still rely on a model of scarcity: there just aren't that many ways to get local news and see local ads. But who knows how long that will last?

I think a helpful way to think about ads in the Internet age is to focus on the best platform to deliver ads to readers. A decade ago, The Orion had one way to deliver ads: the print newspaper. Today, it can use the paper paper, the website, the website webscast and, soon, the new app.

All four have strengths and weaknesses. I think the best ad strategy would be to target advertisers based on the strengths of each platform. By the way, that's NOT what traditional newspapers have done very well. Their strategy has been to sell a combination of ad buys, making online ads part of a discounted package. All that did was teach advertisers that Web ads should be cheap or even free.

So, what kinds of ads go with which platform?

Newspaper - Information rich, price-focused, coupons, events that sell tickets in advance.
Website - Person-to-person (classified ads), advertisers trying to drive traffic to great websites, online stores.
Webcast - Awareness and public image advertising (think sponsorships: this program is brought to you by...), businesses with products that need to be seen in action to appreciate (cars)
App - New-customer focus, products that benefit from user interaction (smartphone coupons) and immediate sales (smartphone coupons).

Some advertisers might benefit from all four platforms, but many more would get the most benefit using one approach. I think selling the most effective platform is the way ad salespeople should approach them.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Now THAT's Alternative Storytelling!

If you haven't seen this online graphic-novel version of the American presidential campaign from the Guardian in the UK, you're missing a brief peek into what a little imagination plus a little technology can do for storytelling. Not my choice for every story, of course, but talk about thinking outside the traditional box!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Getting back on pace

Students from The Orion were honored in several categories this past weekend at the ACP/CMA National College Media Convention in Chicago, but the paper was shut out in the national Pacemaker contest despite being a finalist in both the newspaper and website competitions.

Congratulations to:

Lindsay Smith and Liam Turner for the full-page layout of a feature about Facebook. The judges said: "It's very easy to fall short on a concept like this, but the Orion executed it perfectly."

Tercius Bufete, who won an honorable mention as a newspaper designer.

Sarah Bohannon, an honorable mention in feature writing for her story "Flying Blind."

Aaron Draper, honorable mention for an environmental portrait that featured women's basketball players.

The Orion's traditionally strong local reporting didn't get a single mention. Winners for the 2011-2012 story of the year and reporter of the year were mostly large, dramatic pieces about things like scandals  (Joe Paterno), campus suicide and natural disasters. Covering a campus well is rewarded with the Pacemakers, for which The Orion was a finalist but not a winner.

Judges for the Pacemakers are different from year to year, and what they like changes. Here's a graphic representation of what they said about this year's dozen winners in the four-year college, non-daily division.

I think The Orion's strategy for getting back in the winner's circle next year is to think about how the paper could be more of the things represented by the larger (which means most frequent) words in this Wordle. To see what the judges were looking at, take a look at the ISSUU versions of these winning papers and compare what they're doing to what The Orion is doing.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Enter the Hearst contest!

The second deadline for Hearst college media awards is next Thursday. This time it's for news and feature photos, so if you have something great you'd like to enter, follow the directions below.

Paul Smeltzer and Corey Bruecker both entered the feature writing competition last week. Good luck to them!

The top prizes are scholarships worth thousands of dollars, so it's definitely worth your effort to enter.

Here's the latest announcement:


Deadline:  THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 8, 2012

The following reminder is a digest of rules for submitting an entry in the photojournalism competition. 

Entries in the News and Features Category consists of at least two news and two feature images, of the following categories:  News: breaking news, general news or news photos relating to sporting events
Features: features, portraits, sports, documentary photography
An entry will consist of a minimum of four images (at least two news and two feature), maximum eight images in news and feature categories.

All photographs must have been taken within the following time frame and one image must have been disseminated in print or online from September 1, 2011 through November 8, 2012.

DEADLINE: The deadline has been extended to Thursday, November 8, 2012

Each University may enter up to two different students’ work.

The selected entrants must be current undergraduates at the time the entry is produced and published.  An exception is made for spring, summer or fall 2012 graduates, allowing them to enter the contests in the 2012-2013 program year.  The entry must have been published, however, before students were graduated.  The spring or summer 2012 graduates would NOT be eligible to complete in the 2013 National Championship. 


Send an email to Adviser Mark Plenke before the critique next Wednesday OR bring the photos you'd like to submit to critique. He'll guide you through the rest of the process.


      One of the photographs from the series must be been published during the time period designated.
      A pdf of the tear sheet of the image can be uploaded in the “supporting materials” field or faxed to us.

      A letter from the off-campus publication's editor (if image was published in professional publication) verifying authorship of published photo can be uploaded in the “supporting materials” field or faxed to us.

      Captions: One paragraph summarizing the photo submitted should be included when you upload your image.  Begin the caption with the category. Example:  Feature: caption info

Please label each images.  Example:  News_Name_School_ 01.jpg.
Images size should be no larger than 72 dpi resolution, JPG format, max size of 1,280 pixels on the longest side (8 x 10)

This competition awards $16,200 in scholarships and matching grants to the top five ranking students & their schools in addition to the possibility of qualifying for the National Photo Championship.  The department receives a $100 stipend per competition entered.

Please call Jan Watten at 1-800-841-7048 ext. 4565 or 415-908-4560 or 
Fax: 415-243-0760

Pass this along to people on the photo staff who might not read this blog and good luck!